Interview with Chris Boot
What motivated you to join the Photo Co-Op. Can you tell me a bit about your role as co-ordinator?
I was working at a corporate film and audio visual production company, as a projectionist and runner - my first job out of university - in 1983. But I wanted to work for a cause I believed in. In London it was the height of the battle between Margaret Thatcher and Ken Livingstone, and their respective values. I saw the advert the Photo Co-op posted in Time Out, looking for their first Co-ordinator. I was excited about working there because the photographers in the Co-op were left wing media activists, and that it was a workers’ co-op - meaning everyone involved was a Director, and equal owner of the enterprise.
At the time, The Photo Co-op physically was one filing cabinet full of photographs, an electric typewriter and a phone, in Gina Glover and Geof Rayner’s front room in Tooting, with six photographers earning reproduction fees from library pictures, and getting some commissions from unions, and Greater London Council-funded groups. Three of the six photographers had received a grant from the GLC the year before to produce a campaign to Save the South London Women’s Hospital, and were now supported with a bigger grant – 14,000 pounds if I remember right – to hire a co-ordinator, get organized, get premises, and start producing and supporting other campaigns. This was the time that the GLC was directing community arts funding towards some activist groups, and the Photo Co-op was in Wandsworth, where the Tories’ most radical experiment in privatizing public services was underway. We were funded to be a thorn in Thatcher’s side.
For at least the first couple of years I was there, all the photographers and myself were involved in every decision made. We had weekly meetings that started at about 7pm, and were supposed to last til 9, but sometimes went on til midnight. They were intense, competitive, sometimes argumentative – about ideology, policy, strategy; class, race and gender; money of course; as well as mundane practical things like should we buy a computer. It took me a while to understand what all the stakeholders wanted, (inside the organization, and out), and for me to feel confident about playing a leadership role. The Photo Co-op became more coherent, and rationally organized, over time, without I don’t think becoming less democratic. (We were very influenced by What a Way to Run a Railroad – an Analysis of Radical Failure, that Comedia published in 1986, about the management of co-operatives; we worked hard to make the organization systematic, and functional).
Initially, what I remember of the job was filling in grant applications, fulfilling photo requests from organizations like the Low Pay Unit, and education groups, and different divisions of the GLC, for their campaign leaflets, and posters, etc, sending them invoices, checking the prints back in to the library when the prints were returned. Individual photographers specialized in issues they were particularly exercised by – childcare issues, or issues faced by the elderly, for instance – working to empower groups in the combined role of photographers, teachers, and communications guides. During the meetings a lot of serious argument went on, about photography, the relationship of subject to photographer, strategies to counter the prevailing visual language in terms of the way working class, black people, women, and gay people, were represented. A really significant thing about the Photo Co-op when I joined was that three of the photographers were attending what was then the only part time photography degree course in London, at the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL, now the University of Westminster), which was led by Victor Burgin and Simon Watney. It was a theoretical course that taught semiology, Marx and Freud, and helped inform the ideas that we were working out. As did some of its notable students, like Jo Spence, whose work in photography was very influential on what we were doing. I decided to go to PCL myself, and that equipped me both with a really useful understanding of the making of photographs, as well as a good grasp of questions of representation.
What was the first major project you worked on? Was it the Constitution?
I think we used an off-the-peg constitution from the Co-operative Society. But, yes, at first it was all the basics, getting registered, finding premises etc. And defining ourselves, figuring out how to allocate resources between the photographers.
What was the most important project you worked on and why?
Well for me it was really the Photo Co-op itself. Working on building it up, building the business. Not long after we started, when the GLC was disbanded by Thatcher, we had to rethink things. Grant commitments were kept up by a residuary funding body, temporarily, while we were steadily handed over to Greater London Arts, the local branch of the Arts Council. But their values were different from the GLC; there was still a focus on serving the local community, but instead of support for direct political campaigning, the emphasis was on challenging visual stereotypes around race and gender. We worked to create a working mixed-economy business model, so that we weren’t reliant on funds from any one source. By the time I left, I think we had a turnover of about ¼ million pounds, more than half of that coming from business activities, much of it coming from reproduction fees charged by the photo library, (now open to a wider number of contributors), but also from darkroom facilities for hire, a membership program, an education program, and a range of commissions from straight photo assignments to communications projects for local and national organizations.
For the most part, I was running the office and the business, but I also led some projects, Particularly around HIV and AIDS. This became a major ‘representation’ battleground, in the mid to late 80s, where the mainstream media was held to be ignorant and prejudiced, fomenting panic about ‘the gay plague’. With Jo Spence and Simon Watney, we set up an ‘HIV and Photography’ group, an informal discussion group that met at the ICA, to discuss ways in which photographers could counter the prevailing myths about HIV and AIDS. That led to several projects; the exhibition and book, Ecstatic Antibodies; Resisting the AIDS Mythology, that Tessa Boffin and Sunil Gupta organized. With the Photo Co-op, I worked on a more education-focused exhibition and publication project called Bodies of Experience – Stories about Living with AIDS and HIV, which we did with Camerawork Gallery in East London, with financial support won from the Health Education Council. We commissioned six photographers, including Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Arabella Plouviez, to make new work about the experiences of people living with HIV. These were the first independent photographic responses to the HIV crisis, in the UK. We also produced the first safe sex poster campaign aimed at heterosexual young people, for the Terrence Higgins Trust, where we came up with the campaign slogan – riffing on the Prince hit of the time – ‘Love Sexy Love Safe’.
Looking back on that period, there were flaws in some of our ‘community arts’ thinking. We thought that all the institutional forces in photography – the mainstream media, camera manufacturers, and so on – conspired to deny people the opportunity to represent themselves. This was quite naïve, and you wouldn’t argue it today. But I think we did something valuable, in creating a body of rhetorical, constructed ‘documentary’ photographs, that positively projected a multicultural society, in which people weren’t confined by traditional roles or stereotypes. The idea of creating ‘positive imagery’ – relating to class, race, gender and sexuality – seems dated now, but I think we had an effect on representation norms. We were creating pictures that reflected society as we thought it could be. We had a system for making new pictures that our clients wanted; when we got a picture request for something that we didn’t have in the files – things like women firefighters, or a black teacher leading a class of white primary school kids - one of the photographers would go out to make the picture, that day. We built the value of the picture library that way. Format Photographers, the womens’ agency, was really the one other group in the UK, as far as I am aware, who were thinking practically about representation issues in the same way we were – and between us we contributed to creating a visual language that in a relatively short period of time became the norm. Every campaign we lent our support to, aimed at saving something, or preventing a service being privatized, failed. But I think the imagery we created played a constructive social role.
What was so special and different about the Photo Co-Op for you?
What was most dynamic and exciting, I think, was the way that we were balancing thinking through issues around the politics of representation, while working in practical ways in community contexts. Work informed, as I mentioned, by several of us studying at PCL. Other organisations then and later contributed to the same community photography movement: Blackfriars Photography Project, Camerawork, Format, who I mentioned, and Autograph – the Association of Black Photographers, among others. Many of the ideas of this group were driven by people who attended PCL. The Arts Council mounted a defining series of conferences at the time, that became the gathering place for all the people working with photography in community contexts. I remember at one, I guess about 1987, David Faddy, the head of the photography department at PCL attended. He observed with surprise and pride that almost everyone attending was a current or former PCL student.
How do you feel the Photo Co-Op influenced what you are doing today?
It had a profound influence on me. I got involved because of the issues, and the politics, and wanting to be a media activist, rather than because of the medium of photography as such, but I stayed with photography, and became part of the clan. I learned to run a business, that a group of photographers owned equally, which was extremely useful for the work I did at Magnum Photos. Today, at the Aperture Foundation, I feel I’m drawing on all the threads of the different places I’ve worked in the past – the Photo Co-op, Magnum and Phaidon, and from my own business publishing photobooks. I’m still very much engaged with photography as visual language - as a vehicle through which all of us are able to describe our communities and our experience. Though we didn’t have the internet, and the first photograph wasn’t posted online until a few years after I left the Co-op, the work we did to empower people to take charge of the manner of their representation anticipated the online ‘democracy of photography’ that emerged about to emerge.
Today, at the Aperture Foundation, I feel I’m drawing on all the threads of the different places I’ve worked in the past – the Photo Co-op, Magnum and Phaidon, and from my own business publishing photobooks. I’m still very much engaged with photography as visual language - as a vehicle through which all of us are able to describe our communities and our experience.